Random notes

13 10 2010

Again, I am confounded by an Anthony Esolen essay. I was especially bewildered by this passage:

For there is something self-effacing, or rather self-forgetting, about the true feast. When we celebrate, we rejoice precisely in what comes to us as a gift, what is not wholly in our power to provide for ourselves; and that is even the case when reapers clear the fields and lie back in the shade with bread and wine and song, or when fishermen haul their nets ashore and drink deep at the public house. A feast without the divine, says Pieper, is quite simply unknown; and for that same reason, it is impossible to manufacture joy from the raw materials supplied by the self alone, and impossible to manufacture love.

I wonder if Dr. Esolen has ever worked a day of his life in an actual field under the hot summer sun. I can tell you that it is not at all romantic. I was spared for the most part having to work in the fields, though we did have to work cutting apricots when we weren’t in school. Also, I have had a number of jobs where I did have to toil under the warm California sun all day long. But as someone whose parents had the joy and honor of picking cotton, cucumbers, and other crops that required you to be stooped over all day, I perceive Dr. Esolen’s invocation of peasant life to be a perverse pastoral fantasy. If they haven’t ever lived it, or seen it for that matter, how can they romanticize it so much.

Nevertheless, I agree with his overall point about the idea of the feast. As I wrote as a comment on another blog:

There is a slight variation on the theme of Judas telling Jesus that “for this might have been sold for much, and given to the poor”. And to treat the quinceañera, or even a wedding as primarily a religious ceremony is sort of secularization in reverse: a concession that real life can’t really be sacred, so we need to sprinkle as much church and God on it as possible. (Having gone through the agony of marriage preparation, I don’t think I am exaggerating here.) A lot of this has to do with our cultural Protestantism in this country: we have to be thrifty and not wasteful, we need to invest in the future, etc. Often, that is behind the whole Puritan idea of “a hand up, not a hand out”, and all of that other B.S.

I think here of what Bataille would call, “the accursed share”. Often, weddings and other ceremonies were not opportunities to “spiritually fill up” for what really mattered: everyday life, our jobs, our social obligations, etc. Their goal was the feast, the wasteful expenditure, the “accursed share”. I hate to break it to the Opus Dei and other spiritual technocrats, but in Heaven there are no jobs and no 401-K’s. Heaven is a feast. In their best manifestations, these lavish ceremonies are reflections of that feast, and not because we sprinkle a whole lot of God on them with churchy stuff, but they are so in themselves. Otherwise, I would have to think that Our Lord was a killjoy at the feast at Cana, and I don’t think the Gospel gives us any evidence that He was.

That perhaps is the most subversive, unAmerican attitude that one can have. Life is what happens between feasts. The feast is not an afterthought, a “filling up on gas”, or like taking the car into the shop. In all of the hustle and bustle, we tend to forget that. Even as avowed Catholics, pagans, or even atheists, we act like a bunch of Calvinistic Puritans.

I found another Inside Catholic article interesting, if equally baffling. This one was about pockets of European Catholic culture that continue to exist, mostly in rural settings. The article approaches its issues with appropriate nuance, but I could not help but look askance at that huge Catholic juggernaut known as Latin America as the ten ton elephant in the conversation (perhaps only for me). For all of the village rituals, the cultural festivals, and the roadside shrines are duplicated over and over again for thousands and thousands of square miles just south of our border. Why someone, admittedly of Austrian origin, has to scour the European countryside for scarcer and scarcer remnants of a once thriving Catholic culture is beyond me. I am happy that such things continue to persist and that European Catholicism has a pulse. It just seems a little dubious that an American website would highlight these yet never mention the religiosity of the people who cut their lawn and wash their dishes (except when I write for them).

I also found this passage worthy of some comment:

We can be faithful Catholics wherever we may find ourselves. European Catholics will continue to regard the American model of separating churches and state with no intermediating Catholic culture with suspicion — as too close to French laïcité for comfort. American Catholics will continue to regard European rituals, practices, and state support for religion as empty vessels. But it would be beneficial for us as members of a worldwide Church if we could appreciate these differences by learning from and inspiring each other.

As a “Zen rite” Catholic, I disagree. I think the whole idea of cultural rituals as empty vessels is bullshit, and I regard the American pining for a “burning in the bosom” in every religious experience to be unhealthy and crypto-fascistic. The American religious consciousness reduces all experience to those of the heart and the head. It is supposed to be like a Cartesian Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz: a machine with a poorly functioning brain on a quest for a heart. Religion should be about flesh and blood, even if the flesh is slightly putrid. I am skeptical about a cultureless Catholicism only because I don’t know if such an animal exists. To tell the truth, right-wing American Catholics on the one hand talk about the inculturation of Catholicism in the American context: loving capitalism, freedom, the Constitution, the English language, and so forth. On the other hand, they spend most of their time criticizing what that inculturation looks like: suburban McParish; banal and sappy hymns; amorphous vestments and church architecture; and watered-down teachings directly reflecting our confessional pluralism. One almost wants to say that they would be happy with a cultureless, homogenized Tridentinism with a little bit of High Church Anglicanism and frontier style revivalism thrown in. They are the only people who find that appealing. The rest of us just see that sort of thing as ridiculous.


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10 responses

12 11 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Dear Dr. Esolen:

Thank you for your response. I think I made it clear that I agreed with the essay mentioned in my own way. However, It does still come across to me that you are a believer in a toxic romanticism; one that would idealize past things all the while sanitizing them for modern consumption. The culture of the feast in Catholicism means nothing without the drunken Maya Indian watching a procession, or the dysfunctional patriarchal behavior that those societies tended to perpetrate. You may think Catholicism some neat, clericalized system where everyone worked hard, had a good time, and did everything the priest said, but that is far from the reality. Just as modern people want to be comfortable yet fit, gluttons yet slim, so there is a certain spiritual bulimia amongst some more cultured, aesthetically-minded, politically conservative Christians that would have the best of peasant Catholicism without the cow dung and the squalor. As one who has admittedly never working a real day in his life, and whose family is far removed from the land (mining is a proletarian way to make a living, not a rural one), I would expect you to be more sensitive in diagnosing such a malaise.

11 11 2010
Tony Esolen

Dear Arturo,

Aren’t you just a little uncharitable with me? I grew up among old miners and quarriers. I have a fair idea of how hard that sort of work is. My brother-in-law and his family worked in a stone quarry. My father-in-law worked in a slate quarry. My grandfathers worked in the coal mines. My father and his siblings would haul a wheelbarrow up to the mine just to load it up with chance pieces of coal that fell off the carts, so they could wheel it back a couple of miles into town to sell at a cut rate. The town I grew up in was built by miners. Everything I have seen or heard of their way of life suggests to me that they did have their celebrations. I have no wish to “romanticize” the work, but only to make sure that people don’t suppose that hard physical work rules out the possibility of celebration. It doesn’t. Yes, I grant you, I have not worked in the mines. I suffer from a congenital vascular condition that would have prevented it. If I stray sometimes into a wistfulness, please forgive me. It may be that I wish very much I had a genuine culture to dwell in. Academe doesn’t make up for the loss.

On church music… When Ralph Vaughn Williams was composing and collecting music for the Anglican hymnals, he traveled all across England, searching for folk tunes, many of them passed down through the generations only by ear. Then he’d arrange the harmonies for them and set them to religious lyrics. That’s exactly what the composers of our current music didn’t do, not for the most part. They just ignored all the traditions, from Appalachia to Wales to Italy to Poland. The losses are incalculable. That was real folk music, after all. Instead they composed melodies that are like show tunes, and not like folk tunes; it didn’t rise from the people, and their traditions, but was imposed upon them en masse. I’d like to preserve Romano Guardini’s distinction between culture and the phenomena of the masses, which he called an anticulture. I really don’t see why, if I go to Roanoke, the hymnals in the Catholic church there will feature the same lousy show-tune stuff that they feature up here in Rhode Island, rather than melodies from Southern Harmony — from Appalachia. Same thing in Cape Breton, where my family and I spend the summer. There’s a rich tradition of French and Scottish sacred music, and none of it, none at all, is preserved there; they too have had the same show-tune stuff imposed upon them.

On Wolf’s article: I think his point was that we shouldn’t give up hope for European Catholics. Recently I became friends with an auto-mechanic from Germany, a man who is now approaching old age. He is concerned that his country is losing its culture. Of course the Turks worry him. How much of his worry is based on race, I have no clear idea. But this felt loss of culture has caused him to think again about the Church. This seems backwards to me — but the author’s point was that sometimes a people can re-enter the Church through just such a back door. I don’t know that I agree with that, but who knows? God works in mysterious ways.

14 10 2010
M.Z.

DePere is a suburb of Green Bay. Green Bay has significant black, Hispanic, and Hmong populations. Brown County has a population of a quarter million. The Green Bay metropolitan area is 350K.

13 10 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Some of the best meals I ever had were lunches on days when I ran a weedwacker on a side of a highway for minimum wage, or hiked through the mountains making trails. Usually, they involved my mother’s homemade tacos (this was in my early twenties). Fresh tortillas, beans, a little bit of meat, and chile for a little spice. I get hungry just thinking about it.

But I couldn’t do that stuff now. I would like die or something. Age makes me appreciative that I sit at a desk in front of a computer all day.

13 10 2010
JS Allen

I dunno. I worked for years in the fields, under the sun, in the rain, in the wet cold. Bailing hay, picking rocks, laying irrigation pipe, planting seedlings, hoeing, picking, etc.

Some of my best memories are of the random and infrequent times when the boss’s wife would bring a big bag full of some fresh-made food and some cold drinks (or a thermos of hot chocolate in the cold early spring), and we’d all sprawl around and take a break while we ate. Few things compare to the surprise meal when you’re exhausted from hard labor. Cheap hamburgers, sloppy-joes, it didn’t matter.

Now I’m older and established, and eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m spoiled and maybe even jaded. But when I was eating in the fields, I remember thinking that was some of the best food I ever had, and I still remember it that way. And I don’t think I’m just romanticizing. If I were to do that kind of work again, I bet those same meals would give me the same pleasure.

But I agree with all of your other points. Your observation about the feast not being about “filling the gas tank” is especially good, and applies equally to the sabbath as well. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. As one of the early fathers said, the sabbath was God’s ultimate goal for creation — man resting. The other 6 days of toil are the result of the curse.

13 10 2010
Sam Urfer

As for Grassl, it is important to note that he lives in a small town in northern Wisconsin. My family is from that part of the country. There are two significant population groups; German Lutherans and German Catholics. Wisconsinites still maintain stereotypes about ancestral German city-states (Luxembourgers are renowned for their drinking habits, which I have witnessed). I’m always a little culture shocked in Wisconsin that almost everybody is white, and German. Wikipedia suggests that there are a few hundred people in Du Pere who are not white (97% of the town, probably German for the most part), and that there are as many Native Americans as Latinos (not much of either). What in California would be the elephant in the room, probably is not on his radar; he’s concerned with the state of German Catholicism, because he lives in an almost entirely German Catholic culture.

Not that there isn’t a Hispanic presence in Wisconsin. My mom tells stories about working the orchards when she was teenager as a migrant worker, and that many of the other workers were Mexican.

13 10 2010
The Singular Observer

That should be: If you don’t KNOW anything about it….

13 10 2010
Sam Urfer

I wonder sometimes, about some people…

13 10 2010
Leah

“To tell the truth, right-wing American Catholics on the one hand talk about the inculturation of Catholicism in the American context: loving capitalism, freedom, the Constitution, the English language, and so forth…”

So basically, they secretly want to be Mormons?

13 10 2010
The Singular Observer

Exactly. I get very frustrated by romanticised agrarianism, all this feasting theology (here you have Esolen, at the other end of the spectrum you have Wilson) etc., because, frankly speaking, these folks don’t have a bloody clue. I’ve farmed, and lost it, I’ve been working around the mining industry – I’ve been at the rockface, both figuratively and in person – and it’s a hard life. It’s one thing to speak about laying the table with meat – it is another to see your only ram dying in your arms, knowing that you do not have the money to replace him. It is one thing to write about pretty fields of crops, it is another to see the %&#@ locusts eat away at your produce, or the “nice bunny rabbits” destroying your bean seedlings, overnight.

It is nice to use the pretty cutlery, but it is another thing to sepnd years in searching for mineral deposits, mine it, working at high temperatures underground, etc etc.

Actually, the man who truly appreciates that steak on his table, or that strawberry on his desert, or that diamond on his wife’s finger, is the one who knows what it took to get it there. Ivory tower scholars and “theologians” can really indulge in speaking about that which they know nothing off. To parahrase Nietzsche, of all people: If you don’t anything about it, then shut up.

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